Monsters of the Week
Pockets, Soaps and Episodic Storytelling
I remember as a kid watching the, now legendary, episode of The X-Files titled Squeeze where a man who creates nests out of bile can crawl through the tiniest of spaces into people’s homes to kill them and remove their livers, and thinking “I hope this isn’t going to be a recurring character”. Even at the age of 10 I knew that the episode was a perfect, horror masterpiece and developed any further it would lose its chilling mystery. Later in the series Eugene Victor Tooms reappeared in the episode Tooms but that was, mercifully, the last we saw of the character. The reason for my reticence was that, much as I loved the show the episodes revolving around Mulder’s sister and the grand alien conspiracy were, and still are, my least favourite. Luckily, though the Tooms character did recur it was hardly what you’d call an ‘arc’. Eugene remains, firmly, a monster of the week.
The term “monster of the week” was coined by the writing staff of the original 1963 production of The Outer Limits (revived in the 90s as response to the success of X-Files) as an attempt to distinguish itself from the rival anthology show The Twilight Zone by promising a new monster every week. It has now come to refer to an antagonist in a show that is established then removed within a single episode. This essentially makes the episode a standalone but with the recurring characters of the show. The term often refers to a show that has monsters or villains but just as easily applies to the nature of episodic (spits) ‘content’. This is because standalone episodes used to be the formula for television shows, whether it was the Golden Girls, M*A*S*H*, the A-Team, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Miami Vice, Baywatch or even Leave it to Beaver each episode there was a problem and by the end it is over come. Sure you’d have the occasional two-parter, and the the lives of the characters often played out as a B-story in the background but on the whole, if you missed an episode you weren’t at a disadvantage in enjoying the show. It’s a little different today.
It was with the advent of ‘Prestige TV’ and the weirdly-still-used-as-a-term Boxset of your favourite shows that people began the modern pastime of ‘bingeing’. 24 episode series (or season to you Yanks) were now sold in a unit to be gorged on all at once. My first DVD boxset was Futurama then early Simpsons, meanwhile the entirety of Friends could be found in a lot of people’s homes. This, combined with the growing expenditure on TV thanks to HBO’s incredible production values and the trend for ‘water cooler moments’, switched production mentality towards a more serialised approach to drama. The Sopranos, The Wire and, in particular, LOST helped cement the ongoing serial as the new standard for television. With this standard in place just as the streaming boom kicked in, where an entire series of a show could be dumped onto a platform all at once, the binge model became standard and shows were written to be singular narratives broken into parts. Most prestige Television today is a single story told over multiple series let alone multiple episodes, demanding you watch the whole thing in order lest you miss an integral part of the story. This is great if you are adapting a novel, like Game of Thrones say, or the story is particularly dense, or if it charts the rise or fall of a character like in Breaking Bad but a lot of the time a story doesn’t warrant this kind of incredibly lengthy format of storytelling. Too many are the shows that pad out their runtime with unnecessary filler (I’m looking at you Stranger Things) purely to fit the format. This trend for needlessly episodic structure has even bled into blockbuster cinema with the Marvel franchise having become little more than an incredibly high budget, incredibly long winded series of episodes all to tell a paper thin story. This could be seen as the pendulum swinging the other way from an era of standalone stories but to me it feels like the creeping hand of a different kind of television: soap opera.
The most notable example of this kind of ongoing, never-ending, character based storytelling for television has its origins in the soap opera, a genre of television often derided and sneered at as ‘low-art’ and cheap television. Soaps tended to revolve around an ensemble cast, filmed in a handful of repeated locations, that followed the character’s progressively complicated lives until the actor got a better gig. Most of our biggest stars started in soap opera, particularly the Australians. Kylie Minogue, Russel Crowe, Guy Pierce, Margot Robbie and more all started in soaps. The entire cast of Game of Thrones was taken almost wholesale from a variety of English ‘ongoing dramas’. For this reason soaps are great for the television ecosystem. They often attract great acting, writing and production talent, offering a proving ground for the untested to get to grips with the craft in the way theatre used to. Ideally a soap has a rotating door approach that keeps the show fresh but equally offers a platform to either up-and-comers like Brad Pitt or grand dames like the late Barbra Windsor who saw out her career bigger than ever, as a beloved character in Eastenders. This does not, however, mean it should be the template for good storytelling and yet the ongoing drama format has become the blueprint for prestige TV and even cinema.
This isn’t to say these shows don’t recall their roots. Most shows have pocket or ‘bottle’ episodes, that revolve around a unique premise for the show. These one-off episodes often have a special writer or director and see the characters go on an adventure separate from the main plot or get locked in somewhere forcing the characters into a high pressure state. These are often used as filler or to lighten the tone if the main plot has gotten too over wrought. Consequently, more often than not, these end up being the most memorable and beloved episodes. I’m thinking of Exposé in the unremittingly awful third series of Lost, The Fly in the third series of Breaking Bad, Blackwater in series two of Game of Thrones, Pine Barrens in the third series of The Sopranos and, the best piece of horror TV in years, Teddy Perkins in the second season of Atlanta. Even soap operas get in on this action. The now award-winning episode of Eastenders specially titled Pretty Baby… features just one character recording a monologue to tape for her ailing husband. Its writing was inspired by Beckett’s Krap’s Last Tape and is a tour de force performance from June Brown and earned her a BAFTA nomination. But what is so funny about these is that, but for the name, they are all “Monster of the Week” episodes and are all the better for it.
During its initial eight year run, The X-Files sank deeper and deeper into the soap opera format. Dedicating more and more episodes to the, in the end, incredibly dull central plot about little green men and the conspiracy around them the dragged it down to the point where I stopped caring and only watched the final episode out of a misplaced sense of duty. There was, however, a brief, glorious return to the “monster of the week” format that made the X-Files so damn good to begin with in the sixth series. After the FBI dissolved the X-Files department in the fifth series and the fallout being dealt with in the movie in between series, six was nearly an entire run of these ‘bottle’ episodes and was a hoot throughout. Triangle, the two-parter Dreamland, The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas, Agua Mala and Monday are all favourite episodes not just of X-Files but any show, dealing with time travel, body swapping, ghosts, the creature from the black lagoon and groundhog day respectively. For a format as goofy as The X-Files it always took itself incredibly seriously whereas six seemed to just dive right into what should be the more fun end of the supernatural and strange. Sadly, audience figures said otherwise and critical response complained that it strayed too far from the space alien soap opera that made its name. It’s a damn shame because I feel like that was the last gasp for a regular, one-and-done episodic storytelling live-action TV show. The format still exists and has continued to exist but mainly in animation with Futurama carrying the torch for a long time and now shows like Primal and Rick & Morty (despite its recent continuity-based two part finale) continue to forge ahead with standalone per-episode storytelling.
For me the binge-culture, ongoing-drama style of television is dull. It turns what should be an hour of escapism or drama into a dreary trudge through intractable lore, more like homework than entertainment. Keeping up with the unending horror of everyday existence is enough right now. Keeping track of stats for unemployment, infection rates, death rates, housing prices, fuel prices and what public figure showed their whole arse today is all the homework I need. As a result, I don’t watch TV anymore, I stopped after House M.D. finished. I can’t keep up and I feel no need to and that feels like a shame. I long for the days where I could pick up a show and just watch the episode without needing to understand which part of the multiverse this was set in. Particularly at Hallowe’en. The monsters that exist in real life are going nowhere it seems so it would be lovely to see fictional ones come and go once in a while.